Afro-Ecuadoreans Maintain Identity Through Spiritual Practices

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As a teenager growing up in Ecuador, Johis Alarcón was mesmerized by hip-hop culture. As a visual person, she took up cans of spray paint and started doing graffiti. And the music she and her friends listened to had an urgent beat that piqued their curiosity.

“What are the roots?” she asked. “We reached the conclusion it was from Africa and was a form of spirituality. I started from there and I started to look at understanding African spirituality and how it reached Ecuador.”

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Rozan Jaramillo, Tamia Jaramillo and Mishell Borja, members of the pan-African activist group Addis Ababa, preparing for their presentation of African ancestral clothing at the Machankara Cultural House. Quito, Ecuador, 2018.CreditJohis Alarcón
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San Lorenzo, on the border between Ecuador and Colombia, preserves the memory of the first Africans who arrived in Ecuador. San Lorenzo, Ecuador, 2018.CreditJohis Alarcón
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Rosa María Torres Carcelén, 78, is one of the oldest midwives and healers in La Loma. She learned about childbirth and healing at the age of 9, helping her mother and sisters in childbirth. La Loma, Ecuador, 2018.CreditJohis Alarcón

Rhythms — as vital to sustaining culture as a heartbeat is — were not the only tradition spread by enslaved Africans brought to the Western Hemisphere centuries ago. So, too, was their religion, in which the various orishas — deities — were hidden in plain sight when syncretized with Roman Catholic saints. Ms. Alarcón, who was raised with traditions from the indigenous Andean faith, began to explore Ecuador’s African diaspora, including the lives of her Afro-Ecuadorean friends.

Her resulting project, “Cimarróna,” is an intimate look at not just the indelible influence of African culture, but also and more importantly at how the descendants of enslaved women maintained their identity and dignity through their spiritual practices. The title refers to enslaved people who threw off their shackles and escaped to freedom.

“The practices never disappeared,” said Ms. Alarcón, 26, who lives in Quito. “This is about black liberation. The idea is when the slaves were taken from Africa, their ancestors and orishas came with them.”

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The nighttime sky along the mountains of Ecuador’s Chota Valley, where enslaved Africans arrived in the 16th century. 2018.CreditJohis Alarcón
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Childbirth brings together all the women in the family. Zulma Espinoza, a midwife who lives in La Roldos, massaging her pregnant granddaughter Margarita to reduce pain. Quito, Ecuador, 2018.CreditJohis Alarcón
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Nancy Placencia keeps seeds of the red pigeon bean in her hair. These seeds were brought from the African continent in the braids and the hair of women, and are a staple in the diet of Afro-Ecuadorians. Chalguyaku, Ecuador, 2018.CreditJohis Alarcón

Various Afro-Ecuadorean communities account for about 10 percent of the country’s population, Ms. Alarcón said, and they descended from enslaved people who were brought there to do backbreaking work in mines and cotton and sugar cane fields. Some escaped, she added, finding refuge in areas difficult to reach where they could practice their traditions openly.

Others, she said, were forced into labor replacing indigenous people who had died from yellow fever. But some women among them found paths to freedom, hiding messages in the pleats of their skirts or even in their braids.

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Revelers at a wedding reception. Juncal, Ecuador, 2018.CreditJohis Alarcón
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During Holy Week at the church of El Juncal, men in white remove the statue of Christ from the main altar and carry it through the streets accompanied by songs, prayers and candles. Juncal, Ecuador, 2018.CreditJohis Alarcón
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The celebration of the Virgin of Santa Ana brings families together in the community. After a nighttime Mass, the celebration ends with a band and fireworks. Santa Ana, Ecuador, 2018.CreditJohis Alarcón
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Amada Cortéz, a community leader and educator from the San Lorenzo district in Esmeraldas, bathing in the San Pedro waterfall. She is also a writer and poet, author of the book “Me Llaman la Cimarrona” (“They call me the Cimarrona”), based on African octave poems that she learned from her father. Ecuador, 2018.CreditJohis Alarcón

Centuries later, descendants of these women have reconnected to their roots through the traditions of their faith, which has also been blended with Catholic and indigenous traditions like spiritual cleansing and healing.

“African spirituality, apart from the rituals, is also part of daily life based on the family,” Ms. Alarcón said. “African cosmology and spirituality was fundamental to them staying together and free, including among those who migrated to the cities.”

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A woman carrying a statue of the Virgin of Mercy during a pilgrimage of Afro-Ecuadorians whose beliefs blend Catholic and African ancestral rituals. Quito, Ecuador, 2019.CreditJohis Alarcón
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Katherine Ramos, 23, a member of the pan-African activist group Addis Ababa, keeps alive the traditions her grandmothers taught her on the use of turbans. She wears hers as a loose crown. Quito, Ecuador, 2019.CreditJohis Alarcón

Yet even for their descendants today, the strength of those bonds can be tested. Ms. Alarcón recalled one story of a friend who arrived at home to find her brother covered in talcum powder — his way, she said, of lightening his skin. Another friend remembered how when she was 9 years old, a teacher told her that her hair was “ugly” and should be straightened. They find a sense of self as they get older, wearing traditional styles and learning religious chants passed down through generations.

“This is a story about liberation,” Ms. Alarcón said. “Their only way to resist and stay connected is though these practices they have preserved for centuries. They want to get to know Mother Africa.”

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Zulma Ocles, a midwife in the northwest of Quito, holding plants from her garden that she uses for a tonic for her frail granddaughter. Quito, Ecuador, 2018.CreditJohis Alarcón
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Don Jorge Morales is a healer in Quito’s Caminos a la Libertad neighborhood. His main gifts are curing anxiety and dispelling bad vibes. Quito, Ecuador, 2018.CreditJohis Alarcón
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Zulma Espinoza, a midwife, massaging the belly of her pregnant granddaughter to reduce her pain. Quito, Ecuador, 2018.CreditJohis Alarcón

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